In which we explore Monument Valley, the adorable platform puzzle series for Android, and then dive into its cultural influences and similar games.

Monument Valley 2 had a brief giveaway on the Android platform this last week, so I decided to check it out. This is the sequel to the hit indie casual platformer Monument Valley. The series has a micro cult following among casual gamers. As we’ll show, it also has deep cultural roots.

Monument Valley 2

Like its predecessor, the game is a puzzle adventure where you must walk a character, named “Ro” this time, through a series of pathways, doorways, and obstacles. But the environment is dynamic, using moving blocks and switches to manipulate parts of these structures. The catch is that the environment is a dizzying tour de force of isometric forced perspective which bends the laws of geometry.

In a series of chapters, we learn the grammar of Monument Valley‘s world, where impossible geometry makes apparently 3D shapes twist into knots of intersecting pathways, paths bend back upon themselves, and gravity is entirely subjective to whatever surface you’re standing on at the time. Various knobs and handles allow us to spin pathways or drag building sections around.

The game is all about the aesthetics. It’s a world of soft, gentle colors, artistic layouts, soothing but inscrutable music, and a Zen sense of tranquility. Upon completing a chapter, your reward is to drag a point of light in a five-way mirrored drawing, creating your own design which will fasten itself to the games spinning level-selector.

For a puzzle game, the only thing I found lacking is a substantial challenge. Maybe I’m just uncannily good at visual-spatial skills, but it seems you can easily solve the whole game within a day, even an afternoon. Solving levels takes a minute to orient yourself to that level’s gimmick, spin the frob to see how the twiddling blocks work, and navigate Ro through a series of steps and pathway manipulations.

Ro is joined by a person implied to be her daughter, and the game has a mild story where Ro and the girl solve levels working cooperatively, then voyage apart to begin journeys solo. The game is sweetly sentimental, with Ro and the girl warmly hugging whenever they’re reunited.

On the plus side, this is an excellent game for kids of most ages. The game gently nudges you along, with very few ways to fail. At a few dollars, average price for a game of this type, it’s worth the few hours amusement although, like most puzzle games, it loses a lot of its replay value.

While USTwo’s Monument Valley series is distinctly its own game, the tradition of mind-boggling geometry has deep cultural roots in gaming and geekery. Let’s explore…

MC_Escher_stairs

M.C. Escher

The classical Dutch artist with the rapper-sounding name, M.C. Escher draws instant comparison to Monument Valley for his mathematically-directed geometric art. MC Escher’s universes are dimension-bending illusory worlds where tessellating shapes morph between species of animal, and where impossible buildings and structures churn in a playful whirlpool of warped geometry.

Explore the office space of just about any career requiring STEM graduates, and it’s only a matter of time before you encounter MC Escher’s work reproduced in prints, if not coffee mugs and Tshirts too. Escher is the preferred aesthetic for mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. So ingrained is Escher’s work in deep geek culture that it forms one third of the triad named in the STEM sacred tome, Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

MC Escher’s ideas have saturated culture since the mid-20th century. You’re sure to recognize that jackstraw tumble of staircases and catwalks from Escher’s Relativity in 1986’s Labyrinth

Labyrinth_maze

You can also see ideas transmitted directly from Escher’s Waterfall in Monument Valley‘s architecture, even with a model directly inspired by the print in the first game…

MC_Escher_towers

Other Games Like Monument Valley

Escher’s work and the aspects of impossible geometry represented in isometric perspective enjoy a long tradition of platform puzzle game inspiration. If you liked the Monument Valley series, check out some other games in the same vein:

Android:

Hocus

Hocus is a free puzzle game on Android which takes the same idea of spacial geometry puzzles, this time navigated by a tumbling red block. It’s a freebie app with a minimalist aesthetic, but pleasing enough for quick casual gameplay.

There You Go

There You Go is a free, tiny demo app that’s more like an escape room puzzle set in a pixel-art universe. A beautifully minimalist game, but it’s super short with just a few levels.

Mekorama

Finally one game that’s a direct cousin to Monument Valley but with different gimmicks, Mekorama is a free 3D isometric puzzle platformer which focuses a lot more on the engineering aspect. While the level mechanics stay within the realm of the possible, Euclidean geometric world, the game is filled with interactive pieces.

Not only that, but the game also has an engine to allow you to build your own levels with every part available in the game, and a way to upload and share these levels to challenge other players. Or after you finish the in-game levels, you have more challenges created by the fiendish imaginations of its fanbase. This considerably extends the game’s play value.

Mekorama‘s aesthetic will remind you more of the old Sierra Entertainment series The Incredible Machine, since it’s more about the engineering aspect of accomplishing various abstract goals using a tidy self-contained physics engine. Mekorama is also available on PlayStation. Speaking of which…

Non-Android platforms:

EchoChrome : PlayStation

Shows even more classical MC Escher influence with a touch of Da Vinci, with the poseable mannequin for a protagonist.

The Bridge : multi-platform

A charming hand-drawn game with unique mechanics.

AntiChamber : PC platforms

A unique specimen, in that it’s a 3D first-person perspective built using the Unreal engine.

FEZ : multi-platform

FEZ is a cute idea, with a 2D character and world discovering the possibilities of a 3D world. It’s a platformer where you can spin the world around to get a different aspect, which is re-interpreted back to a 2D mapping. That was a terrible explanation, so it’s easier just to show you:

Conclusion

Not since Tetris has the game world so thoroughly explored the possibilities contained in block-based geometry. This whole family of games is like a miniature renaissance of the platform puzzler, and a welcome diversion into hours of brain-stimulating fun.

 

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.